Laying the Atlantic Cable, 1866; A Social Studies Dialogue
By Franklin Parker and Betty J. Parker (see end About Authors).
In its time the laying of the Atlantic Cable in 1866 was a far reaching technical achievement. It was an important historical event, first, as an early example of international technical cooperation, specifically Canadian-U.S.A.-British cooperation. Secondly, it was important in science, technology, international relations, and international business. In many ways the Atlantic cable helped make the modern world possible.
After reading this dialogue and after doing library and internet research, teachers, students, and other readers may want to answer and discuss the following:
1. Name and describe the most influential leaders who helped lay the 1866 Atlantic Cable.
2. Tell which leaders were most crucial in this endeavor and why.
3. Describe economic, social, technical, and other developments necessary for the successful laying of the cable.
4. How was the laying of the cable financed?
5. Describe the important consequences of the successful laying of the cable.
6. Report the part played in the laying of the Atlantic Cable by the telegraph, the galvanometer, gutta-percha, oceanic studies, and other inventions.
7. Tell how the U.S. Civil War affected the laying of the Atlantic Cable.
8. Compare Britain’s interest and greater political need for the Atlantic Cable as against the U.S.A’s interest and need.
Betty: Why is the history of the 1866 Atlantic cable worth knowing? Why share this topic in dialogue form with high school and college students as well with other readers?
Frank: We have forgotten how important the Atlantic Cable was and what U.S. life was like in the 1850s and 60s. The story of the Atlantic Cable reminds us that Europe then dominated the world. Britain was its political and financial center. The U.S.A. was a far away backwater country separated from Europe by a wide and stormy North Atlantic.
Betty: It took weeks for letters, goods, and people to cross the Atlantic on a ship considered fast for the time. Then, on July 27, 1866, to the world’s amazement and on the fifth attempt over a 12-year period, the Atlantic cable, spearheaded by U.S. businessman Cyrus West Field, instantly connected New York with London.
Frank: John Steele Gordon’s Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (see
Sources at end) concluded that the Atlantic cable electrified people in 1866, changed history forever, helped make the U.S. a major player on the world scene, and created the beginning of the world as a global village.
Betty: This great 19th century engineering feat was an epic struggle costing millions, involving British, U.S., and European politicians, financiers, ships, sailors, technicians, and scientists.
Frank: The Atlantic cable was an early instance of international cooperation. It followed decades of U.S.-British angers over the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and frictionable Civil War incidents. There were failures and disappointments in attempts at laying the Atlantic cable but it finally ended in a history-changing victory.
Betty: Historians have compared the successful completion of the transatlantic cable, July 27, 1866, to the U.S. landing on the moon, July 1969, 103 years later. Frank, tell us: What U.S. and British national factors hastened the laying of the cable? What technical developments, inventions, and economic factors made the Atlantic cable possible?
Frank: Americans in the early 1800s were little better off than the ancient Greeks or Romans in travel time and in speed of communications. Christopher Columbus took a month to reach the New World in 1492. The Mayflower took 23 days to cross the Atlantic in 1619. When the Atlantic cable was completed, the average ship using sail or steam still took several weeks to cross the Atlantic.
Betty: The Industrial Revolution of the 1700s and 1800s changed life by making goods and services faster and cheaper and more available than ever before. It is worth knowing exactly how this occurred.
Frank: Weaving cloth, the basis of the British economy, was advanced by British inventor John Kay’s (1704-64) flying shuttle and by the inventors of the spinning jenny and the water-driven power loom. Scotsman James Watt’s (1736-1819) steam engine increased textile factory output; and, when applied to cars on rails, increased and speeded the movement of people, goods, and services. The economy and life conditions improved, especially in Britain, Western Europe, and the U.S.A.
Betty: George Stephenson’s (1781-1848) first successful steam locomotive the Rocket on the Manchester to Liverpool railway spread railroad lines around the world.
Frank: The middle class grew. New wealthy factory owners, open to ideas, replaced landed gentry in influence. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, peace enabled Europe to turn its energies from war to commerce and industry.
Betty: In the U.S., Eli Whitney’s (1765-1825) cotton gin, a rotating drum with spikes, efficiently pulled cotton fiber from its seed. It made cotton king in the South. New York City, which became the U.S. financial center partly by financing cotton sales abroad, grew in wealth and power.
Frank: Understanding electricity, essential in developing the telegraph, was hastened by Benjamin Franklin’s (1706-90) key hanging from a kite in a thunder storm.
Betty: Lightning from clouds to earth was recognized as the release of built-up differences in potential. Chemical batteries were developed that gave carbon a positive charge and zinc a negative charge.
Frank: A connecting copper wire between differences in potential allowed an instant flow of electric current. England’s Sir William Watson (1715-87) in 1747 proved that an electric current could travel a long distance along a copper wire.
Betty: On May 24, 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse (1791-1872) used a sending key to make and break an electric circuit. This start and stop of electric flow at the receiving end, which had a highly coiled wire, made it an electromagnet which attracted and repelled a piece of metal, producing a click-clack sound.
Frank: The Morse code: dot-dash (or dit-dahhh) for A; dahh, dit dit dit for B, dit dit dit dahh for V, and so on, made telegraph messages possible. Morse’s first message on the telegraph wire between Baltimore and
Washington, D.C., was: “What Hath God Wrought?”
Betty: Another change: Canals replaced slow and costly hauling of mid-west farm products over the Allegheny Mountains to eastern markets. The Erie Canal, connecting Lake Erie with the Hudson River at Albany allowed cheaper, faster access along the Hudson River to New York City.
Frank: Between 1800 and 1860 the amount of U.S. commerce passing through New York City rose from only 9% to 62%. New York City became the biggest boom city in the world. In 1835, on the upswing of that boom, 16-year-old Cyrus West Field left his native Stockbridge, Mass., to seek his fortune in New York City.
Betty: Unlike his seven older brothers who attended Williams College, Cyrus Field persuaded his Congregational minister father to let him seek work in New York City. There a brother arranged his apprenticeship in A. T. Stewart’s (1803-76) dry goods department store, the biggest in New York City, which later became John Wanamaker’s (1838-1922).
Frank: After his apprenticeship at A.T. Stewart’s department store, Cyrus W. Field joined his brother Matthew Field, a partner in a Massachusetts paper mill. From bookkeeper, Cyrus became a leading salesman of paper supplies in New York state and throughout New England.
Betty: Field then became a junior partner in E. Root & Co., a New York City paper wholesaler. That firm failed after the Panic of 1837. Field acquired its paper stock. Although not himself liable, he settled the firm’s debts at 30 cents on the dollar. His own firm, Cyrus W. Field and Co., became the leading U.S. wholesaler of paper and printing supplies.
Frank: Wealthy, living in New York City’s fashionable Gramercy Park, Field soon paid all of E. Root & Co.’s debts, although not obligated to do so. The golden reputation he earned enabled him later to raise millions from investors for the Atlantic cable.
Betty: Still in his 30s, Field gave the management of his own firm to others and looked for new worlds to conquer. In November 1853, his brother Matthew introduced him to a Canadian engineer Frederick Gisborne (1814-80). That meeting changed Field’s life.
Frank: Canadian Frederick Gisborne, a self-taught engineer, headed the Nova Scotia Telegraph Co. Nova Scotia, with its main city of Halifax, is a Canadian peninsula in the Atlantic, northeast of Portland, Maine. To Nova Scotia’s northeast is Newfoundland, fourth largest island in the world. Its main city, St. John’s, is North America’s nearest point to Ireland, England, and Europe.
Betty: Gisborne was trying to build a telegraph line from St. John’s, southwest to Cape Ray, Newfoundland, there to connect through a submerged cable under Cabot Strait in the Atlantic to Cape Breton Island; and continuing into Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia was already connected by telegraph lines to Portland, Maine, Boston, and New York. Gisborne, out of money, his cable incomplete, was bankrupt.
Frank: Field asked: Why are you trying to build your telegraph line from St. John’s to Nova Scotia? Gisborne replied: So that ships carrying news from Europe landing at St. John’s can telegraph that news to New York City, saving a day or two.
Betty: Cyrus Field was not impressed. For European news to reach New York one or two days earlier was not worth his time or trouble. Later, at home, looking at his world globe, Field realized that to send an almost instant telegraph message by a cable submerged in the Atlantic Ocean between Ireland and Newfoundland and then to New York, would be worthwhile and could be profitable.
Frank: November 9, 1853, the day after talking to Gisborne, Field wrote Samuel F. B. Morse to ask if an Atlantic cable was a practical possibility. Yes, answered Morse. He had experimented with an underwater telegraph line in New York harbor in 1843 and was confident it could be done. Morse offered to help.
Betty: Field also wrote to Lt. Matthew F. Maury (1806-73), head of the U.S. Navy Charts and Instruments and an expert on ocean winds and currents. Lt. Maury replied that the U.S. Navy had just completed a survey of winds and currents and made depth soundings in the most traveled U.S. to Europe shipping lanes. Maury ended: “…between Newfoundland…and Ireland the practicality of a submarine telegraph across the Atlantic is proved.”
Frank: Needing capital Cyrus Field turned to his Gramercy Park neighbor Peter Cooper (1791-1883). Cooper had made a fortune in a glue factory and then built the first locomotive for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Cooper was then organizing Cooper Union, a tuition-free night technical school for working adults. Field’s cable plan stirred Cooper’s yearning to serve mankind.
Betty: To Cooper, Field’s Atlantic cable idea fulfilled the Biblical prophecy that “knowledge shall cover the earth, as the waters cover the deep.” Cooper told Field: you find other investors and I will support you.
Frank: Field persuaded three wealthy men to become investors: 1-Moses Taylor (1806-82), controller of New York City’s gas lighting industry; 2-Chandler White, who made a fortune in the paper business; and 3-Marshall O. Roberts (1814-80), a major ship owner.
Betty: The investors, with Frederick Gisborne, Samuel F.B. Morse, and Cyrus Field’s attorney brother, pored over maps and charts. They absorbed Gisborne’s telegraph company into their newly formed New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Co.
Frank: The Newfoundland government hoped for economic benefit. It granted the new company a 50 year charter and some financial aid. On May 8, 1854, Peter Cooper became president, Cyrus Field was chief operating officer, and other officers were named. They committed themselves to raise $1.5 million, a huge sum then, but as problems mounted, not nearly enough. Cyrus Field wrote 14 years later: “God knows that none of us were aware of what we had undertaken to accomplish.”
Betty: In early 1855 brother Matthew Field supervised 600 workers completing the telegraph line across southern Newfoundland. Cyrus Field went to England for advice about the cable. He spoke to John Watkins Brett (1805-63), expert in submarine telegraphy who, with his brother Jacob Brett, had in 1851 successfully laid a 22 mile telegraph cable under the English Channel between Dover and Calais, France.
Frank: John W. Brett suggested a cable of three twisted copper wires, each covered with a new insulator, called gutta-percha. Bundled together, the wires were wrapped in tarred hemp, covered with another layer of gutta-percha, and the whole sheathed in galvanized iron wire.
Betty: Gutta-percha came from trees grown in Malaysia. Unlike rubber, gutta-percha did not break down in cold salt ocean water but hardened, yet was supple, a perfect insulator.
Frank: The cable, made in England, was placed on the steamship Sarah L. Bryant, which headed across the Atlantic to lay the cable under the Cabot Strait, south of Newfoundland.
Betty: In Canada Field chartered the James Adgar to tow the Sarah L. Bryant across the Cabot Strait as it laid the
cable. Field entertained aboard the Sarah L. Bryant the Peter Coopers, the Samuel Morses, Field’s two daughters,
and two nationally known clergymen. Buffeted by storms and distracted by the partying guests, the towing ship’s
Captain Turner rammed the Bryant.
Frank: The cable kinked and, to prevent its weight already in the water from dragging the Bryant under, the cable
was cut and lost.
Betty: It was a painful lesson. The delicate maneuver to be learned was how to coordinate cable laying speed and
braking mechanism with cable weight, ship’s speed, wind gusts, weather changes, and shifts in currents. It had to
be learned by trial and error.
Frank: The cost of failure to lay a cable under the Cabot Strait in August 1855 was $351,000. The cable was
finally laid under the Cabot Strait in late 1856 and the telegraph line completed from Newfoundland to New York
City, about 1,000 miles. Total cost, $500,000, a third of the firm’s capital. Field returned to London in 1856 to
raise more money.
Betty: The British government, wanting rapid communication with its far-flung empire, backed Field with cable
laying ships and a £14,000 annual subsidy (that was $70,000 a year).
Frank: This subsidy gave British government messages priority over private messages. The exception was–U.S.
government priority over British government, if U.S. support matched Britain’s support.
Betty: Encouraged, Field, in London, formed the Atlantic Telegraph Co. (October 1856) and sold shares worth
£350,000 (that was $l.75 million).
Frank: The U.S. Congress hesitated to match Britain’s offer. Some in Congress doubted that the cable would
work. Others said that the rich cable backers should pay their own way. Others were traditionally anti-British.
The Senate passed the needed legislation by one vote, the House by a few more. Pres. Franklin Pierce signed the
aid bill on March 3, 1857.
Betty: Atlantic Ocean soundings between Newfoundland and Ireland made by a U.S. ship and a British ship
determined the best cable route.
Frank: Added to the team were British chief engineer Charles T. Bright (1832-88), who chose Valentia Bay,
Ireland, as the best cable connection port.
Betty: Also added as advisor was Glasgow University Professor William Thomson (1824-1907, later Lord
Kelvin). William Thomson, described by later historians as half Albert Einstein-half Thomas Edison, invented the
galvanometer, which precisely measured electric current variations in the cable.
Frank: No single ship at the time was big enough to carry the new, thicker, heavier 2,500 mile long cable. In July
1857 the cable was divided between the USS Niagara and the HMS Agamemnon. Samuel F.B. Morse’s plan was
followed: both ships to start from Ireland, one laying its cable, a splice made in mid-Atlantic, with the other ship
laying its part of the cable to Newfoundland.
Betty: Both ships set out from Ireland, each loaded with the 1,250 mile long carefully coiled cable. August 6,
1857: the cable was caught in the braking machinery. It broke. It was spliced. And the brake speed was adjusted.
Frank: August 8, 1857: 85 miles of cable was laid. August 10: the electric signal in the cable faded, was revived,
and the cable, after being laid 400 miles, broke and sank. The first Atlantic cable attempt of 1857 had failed.
Betty: Cyrus Field returned to a New York City hard hit by the financial Panic of 1857. His own paper firm was
in debt. Always optimistic, Field went to Washington, D.C., and got the U.S. Navy to lend him the USS Niagara
and the USS Susquehanna.
Frank: The Navy also assigned him the Niagara’s engineer William E. Everett (1826-81) as the Atlantic Cable
Co.’s chief engineer. Engineer Everett built more efficient cable laying and braking systems. Glasgow University’s
Professor Thomson built a more efficient marine galvanometer to measure cable electric currents more precisely.
Betty: Spring and summer 1858. Second cable laying attempt. Engineer Charles Bright’s plan was followed: one
ship laid cable from Ireland, the other from Newfoundland. They were to meet and splice their ends of cable
together. June 13, 1858: As the two ships approached each other, the worst North Atlantic storm in memory
buffeted them mercilessly.
Frank: Coal bins on deck broke loose. Coal dust, mist, fog, and mountainous waves caused a cable break; 45
seamen were in sick bay, some with broken bones. The second cable laying attempt of 1858 had failed.
Betty: In London, gloomy and defeated, the Atlantic Cable Co. chairman and vice chairman resigned. They
advised their fellow board members to sell all assets and liquidate the company. Staggered, Field used all of his
persuasive powers to hold the remaining board members. True, he told them, 300 miles of cable had been lost.
But there is still enough cable on the ships to complete the job. Let us try again.
Frank: Try again they did in 1858, with short-lived success. The cable worked for two weeks. Some 400
messages were exchanged. The signal then disappeared. Elation turned to despair. Press and public dismissed
the cable as a waste of time and money. Here is precisely what happened.
Betty: July 17, 1858: The cable laying fleet left Ireland, this time without cheering crowds. August 1858: The
cable laying ships grappled the ocean floor for the broken cable ends. Cable ends were found, raised, spliced and
the electric signal was faint but grew stronger.
Continued in 2 of 2 Parts: “Laying the Atlantic Cable, 1866; A Social Studies Dialogue,” By Franklin Parker and Betty J. Parker
(see end About Authors).